Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss (Eduardo Fierro photo)

Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss: Writing Fiction Based on Ancestors’ Stories


YEREVAN / LOS ANGELES — Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss is an Anglo-Armenian writer and actress. She was born in Devon, England in 1961 to an English father and Armenian mother. When she was 2, her family moved to Nicosia, Cyprus; then moved to London when she was 18. Here Victoria trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Harwood started her career as a dancer, then in television and stage, working in theaters in London and Europe. After getting married she moved to Hollywood with her husband, producer William Butler-Sloss (1967-2018) and two sons, Arum and Roibhilin, where she continues to work in voice overs. Victoria acted in more than 20 TV series and films. In 2014, her diary about the 1974 war in Cyprus was exhibited and turned into a documentary called Cyprus Summer 1974. Harwood’s first book, published in 2018, is the first part of a trilogy beginning in the Ottoman Empire in 1895 and following four generations of women until the present day. Residing in Los Angeles, Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss divides her time between the US and Cyprus.

Dear Victoria, we briefly met in London in 2005 during the Armenian Film Week. I was glad to meet a British actress with Armenian origin, who is interested in her mother’s culture. Do you speak any Armenian?

Yes, I do! Armenian was my first language along with English as I was living in Cyprus with my mother’s extended family when I was a baby. And then, something happened. I have actually written a story about it which will appear in a later book in the series. We moved to England when I was two and my mother continued to speak to us in Armenian at home until my brother started primary school. One day she was called in to school for a meeting and told that the teachers thought he was confused as he would skip between the two languages. They told her to stick to English at home. I remember the day she told me we would have to only speak English as my brother was confused. I asked what she meant and she explained. As a 4-year-old it was clear to me: “He knows what he’s saying. so maybe it’s the teachers that are confused not him?” Anyway, she dropped speaking to us in her mother tongue and consequently my Armenian is basic. I then went to classes in London with my father when I was in my 20s and we both learnt how to read and write as well.

Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss and her book (Arum Butler-Sloss photo)

Where are your mother Takouhi Avakian’s roots from?

My great-great-grandmother Mertha Djindjil was an Assyrian from Mosul. She married Thoooma Khouri in Ourfa and had six children — my great-grandmother Khatoun was one. She married Iskender Agha Boghos and had four children, my grandmother Alice being the eldest. In 1922 the family were exiled to Aleppo, and my grandmother Alice met my grandfather Haygaz Avakian and married him. He came from Kharpert. My mother Takouhi and her sister Verginia were both born in Aleppo and the family moved to Cyprus in around 1938, where my mother later met my father… and then I was born! All of the people above are in the trilogy, so hopefully you will get to read all of their stories!

What do you have from your mother’s Armenian heritage?

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From the age of about 8 I was brought up in my extended family — great-grandmother, grandparents, aunt, uncle, cousin. We lived together in two houses on one plot of land with cats, birds, dogs. A strong sense of family has been my backbone and to this day I feel privileged to have been brought up in such a loving, if sometimes chaotic home. I eat dinner with my sons every night. Is that Armenian? To me it is. When people have lost so many family members due to circumstances beyond their control, family becomes everything.

In your theatrical career there were some Armenian connections. In 1996 you acted in “The Sentence,” a play on Armenian subject by Tamara Hinchco and Christina Balit; later your directing debut was “Black Angel” about Arshile Gorky, starring Nouritza Matossian. Please tell us about this and other Armenian-related theater works if they are such.

I was involved in a performance of poetry reading of Armenian poems at the Hellenic Centre in London and afterwards was approached by Nouritza Matossian, who wrote Black Angel. She was about to go on a book tour to promote her book and asked if I would help her prepare. After reading the book I floated the idea of creating a one-woman show and telling the story from different female perspectives: the mother, the sister, the wife and the lover. Nouritza was completely on board and so we created the piece which was accompanied by slides and music. Although not a trained actress, Nouritza is a natural born storyteller and the show was a great success. She travelled the world with it to great acclaim and we remain good friends to this day.

Victoria Harwood Butler-Sloss (Eduardo Fierro photo)

Your novel, The Seamstress of Ourfa, was published five years ago. I assume it was inspired by your family.

I call the story “fictoir,” meaning a blend of fiction and memoir! The stories are all based on true events that were passed down through family stories. I fictionalized conversations and characters so as to tell the story in actual time, but essentially the book is about my family, beginning with my great-grandmother Khatoun’s story. She is the Seamstress of Ourfa.

What was the reception to your novel?

I have had wonderful feedback on the book. I have not had any negative responses which may be partly due to the way the story is told, very matter of fact, without animosity. My great-grandmother never bore any hatred, even though she lost everything when exiled. As far as translations, not yet. I am open to it and would welcome a translation into Armenian!

Please tell also about the award-winning short film, “A Flock of Birds,” based on the excerpt of your novel.

When I finished writing and sent Seamstress of Ourfa out to publishers I wanted to do something to distract me while waiting for a response. I decided to film my favorite chapter of the book, “A Flock of Birds.” To begin with I was just going to film something very interpretive and wanted to hire a cameraman and crew. It soon became clear that I didn’t have enough money to hire anyone! So, since I had access to a camera, I decided to film it myself. I literally googled how to use the camera (A Cannon D5) and switched it on. I was amazed at how beautiful everything looked through the lens. My family were visiting and along with some friends, I had them all play roles in the film. My mother, aunt, cousin and neighbors all play roles. The film won several awards and really opened up another avenue to me for storytelling. The chapter is told from the perspective of a dead woman, taking us through her last day on earth and the secret she held close all her life. It’s based on a story about my great-great-aunt Ferida.

You were the recipient of Creative Writing Grant of International Armenian Literary Alliance (IALA) in 2022. What have you done during last year?

The last year has been about reawakening. My husband passed away two months before I published Seamstress of Ourfa. For a year I was busy promoting the book and then the pandemic happened and my two sons ended up back at home (my eldest was in college). My aunt also passed and I spent time looking after my mother who has Alzheimer’s. I found it hard to read a book and even harder to write — my creative energy was sapped. And then, last year I found the space to get back to editing the second book in the trilogy – tentatively called Love in Aleppo. I applied for a grant and was awarded the creative writing grant by the IALA and with that fire lit under me I am now in full swing and getting my final draft ready.

In 2019 you wrote you are going to travel to Armenia.

With the pandemic I didn’t go anywhere until last year when I finally visited family in London and Cyprus after three years. I’m ready to come anytime, now!

You are always welcome to your motherland!

Thank you! I would love to come!


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